BGL – Canadissimo

Read our feature on the Québécois collective, who have brought their trademark mix of pranks and tomfoolery to the Venice Biennale, from the May 2015 Issue

By Craig Burnett

Canadassimo, 2015, Canadiana Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Photo: Ivan Binet Taxi Chicha Muffler, 2013, performance, London taxi. Photo: Natalie Jean. Courtesy the artists; Parisian Laundry, Montreal; and Diaz Contemporary, Toronto Rapides et dangereux, 2005, performance, motorcycles. Photo: Jean-Michel Ross. Courtesy the artists

The Giardini during the Biennale – so often hot, crowded and grim – could use a dépanneur and a place that’s a little less serious. Enter BGL, a three-part collective from Québec City, bringing a bit of their local culture and a few laughs to Venice. BGL formed in 1996, when Jasmin Bilodeau, Sébastien Giguère and Nicolas Laverdière, preparing for an exhibition, gathered the work they’d made in pairs or on their own and threw it into a kind of see-through garden shed. Combined effort, playful process, single result: the BGL template was set with their very first work.

If you’re Canadian, you might know what a dépanneur – or ‘dep’ – is. If you’re a Quebecker, you know them intimately. A dep is the province’s answer to that mainstay of any street corner worldwide: a small shop where you might grab a bag of crisps, some window cleaner or a soda. And that’s stage one of the three-part experience that BGL will build in the Canada Pavilion: a downmarket dep, replete with tinned goods, foodstuffs, Québécois beer, plumbing problems and even a few things you might need in Venice (umbrella, anyone?), all in near-perfect verisimilitude.

“A lot of our work functions on that ambiguity of knowing whether it’s true or not,” explains Laverdière, spokesperson for the group because his English is the best. (I spent a summer studying French at Laval in Québec, the same university where BGL went to art school. Yet without Laverdière’s English, we’d barely understand each other.) This dépanneur has a twist: many of the product labels are blurry. It’s not all the prosecco you’ve been drinking. BGL scanned, blurred and reprinted the labels. “When you enter, everything is normal,” explains Laverdière. “But if you’re curious, you’ll notice that something is wrong. It’s physically annoying. When you discover it, we hope it provokes pleasure.”

BGL Rapides et dangereux, from May 2015 Feature BGL

Rapides et dangereux, 2005, performance, motorcycles. Photo: Jean-Michel Ross. Courtesy the artists

Annoying pleasure. Maybe you’ll need a rest, duly offered in the next space, the second of three. But let’s step outside for a second. The Canada Pavilion has an almost domestic scale and atmosphere, and because our pranksters wanted to make it look like it was undergoing renovations, they covered it in scaffolding, built a kind of ‘patio’ above the whole structure – and added a layer of fake windows. From the ‘patio’, visitors are encouraged to throw their money away (not usually a problem in Venice), tossing coins into precipitous channels that shoot for five or six metres before falling into a space between windows, where the coins will drop, dart and ding off bolts between two panes of glass as if the facade were a giant pachinko machine. Inside, to help you watch and listen to this spectacle of money falling from the Venetian skies, BGL has laid on a giant sofa.

The pavilion culminates in the next space, an artist’s lair festooned with strange terracotta figurines and countless cans for mixing paint. Some character seems to inhabit the pavilion, running a dépanneur by day, painting in the backroom in off hours. His studio, offers Laverdière, is “a total mess”, and the artist is “hypnotised by the pleasure of mixing paints in the cans. They are in the centre of the room, on the comptoir – these cans are everywhere and full of colours.” The figurines – “gods, animals, a lot of little personnages” – look like they were made from warm clay, but this is another trick. A bin sits in a corner of the studio, oozing terracotta goo. The plan was to make all these mass-produced idols look raw and artisanal, so they dipped them all in brownish paint. A wash of rainbow waits.

BGL, Taxi Chicha Muffler, from May 2015 Feature BGL

Taxi Chicha Muffler, 2013, performance, London taxi. Photo: Natalie Jean. Courtesy the artists; Parisian Laundry, Montreal; and Diaz Contemporary, Toronto

BGL trade in tomfoolery. For Rapides et dangereux (2005), they donned black and yellow tights and rollerbladed through Québec City, pushing a modified (four extra wheels at the front) but idle motorbike through the streets like space-age jackasses. In 2013, they tipped a London taxi on its side and attached a shisha pipe to its muffler, inviting passersby to take a puff. On a Montréal roundabout this year the collective will see the installation of La Vélocité des Lieux, a massive sculpture of a Ferris wheel that looks like it was made from bus carriages. All of these works have something in common with Canadassimo, the title for their pavilion: they emphasise communal experience, absurdity, risk, humiliation and goofiness. When I ask Laverdière about humour in their work, he replies immediately, “I think it’s our job.” He then mentions that a few years ago there was a lot of talk about l’art engagé: art that is quantifiably useful, responsive to social and environmental crises. “Personally,” he says, “I felt my engagement was about keeping craziness and liberty alive.” The more he tries to explain this position, the more tongue-tied he becomes. Eventually, he says, “When I try to explain in English, je suis melangé.” But this isn’t a problem with fluency. We all get mixed up trying to articulate how humour operates in art, how it can have such a liberating effect on the viewer.

According to Kant, Voltaire said that heaven offered two things to counterbalance life’s hardships: hope and sleep. ‘He might have added laughter,’ intoned Kant, except for the fact that the ability to arouse laughter was a scarcer talent than writing books that break your head, neck or heart. Humour, in other words, is more difficult than dreaming, thinking or sentimentalising. It’s even tougher in visual art. Make a joke and you risk bathos or banality. Laughter demands a communal spirit, a bit of faith from your public and fellow artists. When I asked how BGL became a collective, Laverdière described how they decided two days before the opening of their first show to gather all the objects they’d made as individual artists and throw them into what he called a cabanon, Québécois for a wooden shed. With the shed covered in transparent plastic, the individual pieces were faintly discernible, but the work was now a composite structure, a Déchets d’oeuvres. The title is a pun, untranslatable, but I’d offer something like Trash Masterpieces. Born an oxymoron, BGL are still willing to risk throwing it all away to make us laugh. 

Read BGL's answers to our 2015 Venice Questionnaire, ahead of the opening of the Biennale. 

This article was first published in the May 2015 issue.